Certainly there are specialty soups and stews, like gazpacho, mulligatawny and beef bourguignon, where you need a recipe to follow the first time, but for everyday meals you will learn what works together and make your standard dishes much the same each time.
Don't get hung up on recipes. This article is all about the method behind making a great stew. Once you have that mastered you will use recipes as suggestions and springboards to inspiration. With the winter months fast approaching, various stews are a hallmark dish that are known to warm both the body and the soul (especially on those bitter cold days).
You can put almost any vegetable you like into your stew and the resulting flavor will change either slightly or significantly - depending on how strong a flavor the vegetable has and how much you use.
As a minimum, I always like to start with carrots and onions.
Next would be celery, potatoes and cabbage.
I like peppers in a salad but in a stew they can take over the flavor if you use too much. The same is true for celery root.
Zucchini is okay but does not add much flavor and goes mushy if cooked too long. It's best to add any soft vegetables like this during the last 10 minutes before the stew is done.
If you are one of those people who will only eat the very top of broccoli, then a stew is a great way to use the stalks you would otherwise throw away. Just keep the stalks in a baggie in the freezer until you need them. Don't go crazy with this veggie, though. Try not to use any more than a two-inch thick stalk, but up to a half-inch thick piece of stalk is fine. Leave it in bite size pieces or chop it up--either way it makes a great addition to your stew.
You see what I mean about winging it. Use quality ingredients and some common sense. Put in what you like and it will be fine.
With a few exceptions, I don't add many spices to the stews I prepare. I usually add a couple of shakes of Worcestershire sauce and a bouillon cube.
The exception is turkey stew, which, in my opinion, is greatly improved with sage. If you stuff your turkey with a sage and onion stuffing, and some of the leftover stuffing makes it into the stock, then you will get some of the flavor. But, be sure to taste it to see if you need to add some.
A watery stew may still be full of goodness but it doesn't taste very good. Kick your taste up a notch or two by adding a bouillon cube or liquid towards the end of the cooking process.
I guess I should have mentioned salt in the spices section but I don't usually think of it as spice. I often add a teaspoonful or two to a 3 quart saucepan of stew. It really helps to bring out the flavor - but taste it before and after. Add just a little at a time. You can always add more salt, if needed, but you can't take it out.
And, watch out for the cheap bouillon cubes. Try spooning out some of your stew into a measuring cup and dissolving your cube in that before adding it to the pot. This way, if it is super-salty, you can toss it in the garbage without ruining all your hard work.
OK, I think you have enough background, it's time to put it all together and make a stew.
If you are making a red meat stew from scratch you start with the meat. Since the ham, chicken or turkey is already cooked, it gets added right at the end because all you want to do is warm it up.
Prepare Your Vegetables
At a minimum, you'll need a medium to large yellow onion and 3 or 4 carrots. If you can find carrots that still have their green tops, that's best, otherwise you will have to settle for the ones in the poly bag. Just make sure they are reasonably fresh and break with a snap. If you cut the carrots in wheels their flavor tends to get lost. I prefer 1 to 2 inch pieces so that when you eat them you get the full carrot taste. The same goes for the onions, if you finely chop them you will flavor the stew water but you won't get the same taste experience that you do from a decent bite-size piece.
You might want to consider keeping all your vegetables to bite-size so that each mouthful has its own distinct taste.
Bring your stock to a boil and add the vegetables that take the longest to cook. Onion, carrots and celery should be first in the pot.
By adding the vegetables to the stock, the stock will no longer be boiling, so adjust the heat to achieve a nice simmer and put the lid on the pot. Covering the pot will raise the temperature so you will have to turn the heat down to avoid boiling it and to maintain a slow simmer.
After a few minutes add potato, cabbage, broccoli, etc. and continue to simmer.
Finally, add any watery vegetables like yams and zucchini.
When you can easily stick a fork in a piece of carrot, the stew is done. Time to taste it and adjust the flavors.
Add teaspoons of Bovril or OXO cubes one at a time, tasting in between, until it is right. If you add more than 2 or 3 you probably started with too much water.
Consistency is important to a successful stew. If you used a split pea stock your liquid will be thicker than water but may still benefit from thickening.
In days gone by, cooks (and some chefs today) used a flour roux to thicken stews. It works but can be tricky to use and often leads to clumps of raw flour in your liquid.
Cornstarch is much easier to use and the results are fairly consistent. Put a couple of teaspoons of cornstarch in a measuring cup and carefully add just enough cold water to make a liquid. Be careful not to add too much water. As you stir the mixture it can seem almost solid and then the next drop of water will be all you need.
Turn up the heat under your pot slightly. Stir your stew and gradually add the cornstarch mixture.
You should see the consistency change. Stop adding the cornstarch as you approach the thickness you are aiming for.
The last step is to add the leftover meat and turn off the heat. Let the stew cool and put it in the fridge until tomorrow.
By leftovers, I mean meat that you cooked over and above what was required for the meal.
The quality should not be any less than what you serve the first time. Don't ruin your hard work by using scraps that should be given to the dog. Trim off the fat and gristle. If it's tough, putting it in the stew won't improve it.